Thursday 23 August 2012

R.I.P Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

Just a reminder of the 86th Anniversary of the death of Rudolph Valentino.

R.I.P Rudolph Valentino (May 6, 1895 - August 23, 1926)

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

Monday 20 August 2012

Guest Post: Let's Misbehave with Marjorie Beebe

The lovely Ian has done a piece for me on the brilliant, but unknown comedienne Marjorie Beebe. Hopefully he will be doing some more articles for me in the future and I encourage you to check out some of Miss Beebe's movies and shorts available on Youtube, I will put a few links at the end.

MARJORIE BEEBE was a rollicking slapstick comedienne, as expert at executing a pratfall as she was at delivering a wisecrack. Her all too short film career can be divided into three sections. There was the period at Fox in the late 1920s, followed by her involvement with Mack Sennett and his new two reel talkie shorts in the early 1930s, and then finally her return to features, an unsatisfactory ragbag of late 1930s support roles before she retired permanently from the movies. It is her career with Mack Sennett, which immediately followed her big Fox triumph with The Farmer’s Daughter (Arthur Rosson 1928), which is sadly lost, a career which includes a few shorts for other studios when he leased out her services, that fits so happily into the Precode timespan of this site. Under the umbrella of slapstick comedy the roguish Beebe perpetrated all manner of mischief.

Beebe as the Cowcatcher's Daughter laughing as her father tries to scold her
Marjorie Beebe did not do decorous nor demure and she was as much a handful in real life as she was on screen. Mack Sennett struggled to control her. He knew how good she was so he put up with quite a lot from his party girl. By 1930 he was requiring her to sign a letter promising to keep off alcoholic liquor while filming. When that did not work he held back part of her salary until filming was complete. But on screen she could sizzle, and she shared the same sense of humor as her great movie mogul mentor. The papers carried rumors of an engagement which Sennett (not it would seem ever the marrying kind) had to deny though he graciously said it was the biggest compliment he had been paid in a long time. He was already on record saying she had the talent to become the best screen comedienne of all time.

She could be very sassy on screen and she took as good as she gave; she was tough and resourceful. She was the Cheeky Chappy turned female. In the one reel Hot News Margie (Alfred J. Goulding 1931) she plays the most brazen of newspaper girls seeking her scoop about an adulterous footballer no matter what. She breaks into the men’s locker room and also invades the pitch with a match in progress. In Racket Cheers (Mack Sennett 1930) she plays a booze guzzling, gun toting gangster’s moll and in Dance Hall Marge (Del Lord and Mack Sennett 1931) pushed boundaries further by playing a club hostess entertaining men for money. The film also includes a bravura chase scene that few comediennes other than the intrepid Beebe would even have attempted. In A Put-Up Job (Albert Ray 1931) she plays the young wife flirting with the builder. In Doubling in the Quickies (Babe Stafford 1932) she abandons her fiancé to chance her luck in Hollywood. Alongside these sassy broads she also played the disorderly daughter in a series of shorts with Andy Clyde as her confused and exasperated old father. In Campus Crushes (Mack Sennett 1930) she indulges in high jinks at college and for Cowcatcher’s Daughter (Babe Stafford 1931), a sort of remake of her Fox triumph, she goes completely wild, running away from college to a circus, training her horse to push her boring fiancé down the well, and indulging in nude midnight swims in a forest lake. Long suffering Pop Andy has to take his unruly daughter in hand.  

In a way both Cowcatcher and Doubling in the Quickies seem a touch biographical, tales of a country girl (Beebe was from Missouri) with a yen to perform. In both of them too, and in other titles, the fiancé was there to be pushed around while Beebe ogled more attractive men.
Miss Bebe as Hot News Margie getting an eyeful of nude male flesh in a football locker room

After Sennett went bust Beebe in real life went through two or three short-lived marriages which suggest that in her early twenties she had little patience with male frailty. One promised her the earth telling her he was a New York investment banker when in fact he was a penniless bum (this was the Depression) and in poor health. Marjorie went straight to the divorce courts complaining she had to sell her car for them to live on. He replied he only told the lies because he didn’t think she would be interested in him otherwise. How right he was! But she found some happiness in later life with a more settled marriage and there are still lateral descendants alive today- Beebe was an only child with no children of her own- who fondly recall their dear kind old Aunt Marge.
Ms Beebe as Dance Hall Marge drives a car underwater after a frenetic  chase scene

Youtube Links...

Instead of adding videos to this article, I will link to the Youtube site:

Saturday 18 August 2012

Sunday Precode Beauty Tip 1#

I've been reading alot of Precode movie magazines (Photoplay, Motion Picture ect) and they are filled with all sorts of great beauty and health tips and tricks from the stars. I aim to make it a regular Sunday feature with my first being the markeup regime of the Precode queen of beauty herself, blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow.

Jean's Top Tips:

  • Use a fine tipped eyebrow pencil to create a high arched and narrow eyebrow. This style 'enlarges the eye and gives clarity'.
  • 'Jean uses a true red cream rouge for her lips, blending the line perfectly and carrying the color well inside to prevent a break in tone.'
  •  'Skin-tone powder is then puffed lightly, but thoroughly over Jean's face and neck, with special attension to the nostrels, eye corners and chin.'
  • 'Jean's patnium hair has probably aroused more comment and curiousity than any one feature of any star. Naturally blonde, Jean encourages whiteness by weekly shampoos with white soap and a final rinse containing a few drops of French bluing. She brushes for softness, sets her wave with water and vinegar.'
  • Finally, 'she depends upon good health, fresh air, excercise, cream, soap and water followed by an ice water rince for her perfect skin.'
This pic is taken from Photoplay Magazine.    

Make Some Noise about ‘Wings’ (1927)

This is my contribution to the Eternity of a Dream’s Speechless Blogathon. My piece (as you can probably tell) is on the classic silent epic and first Academy Award winner, ‘Wings’ (1927).
As it is a 2 hour long marathon it is difficult condense the plot down, but I will do my best:
‘Wings’ (1927) covers the entirety of World War 1 – before, during and after. In 1917, Jack Powell (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) is a normal young man with dreams of becoming a pilot, his best friend is his neighbour the playful, boyish and reliable Mary (Clara Bow). Poor Mary is secretly in love with Jack but he is smitten by the belle of the region the delicate and beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) who is, unfortunately, in a ‘sort-of’ relationship with David Armstrong (Richard Arlene). Soon, the war is upon the happy community and both David and Jack enlist in the aviation corp. They begin as enemies – both rivals for the love of Sylvia – but later bond over the training and develop mutual respect for each other. They are rapidly graduated flyers and begin patrolling the area. On their first flight they are attacked by German fighters and both narrowly survive although many of the others die.
Next we meet Mary now a veteran driver for the women’s volunteer army and a favourite of all the men. On one of her trips taking medical supplies to a camp, she is almost hit by enemy bombs and is ultimately saved by the bravery of Jack and David.  They are decorated for valour and are granted leave. But it doesn’t last, they are called back due to the impending increase in warfare. Before Jack leaves, he is reunited with Mary in a bar, but he is too drunk to recognise her. Mary, thinking Jack has left her for another woman, is upset. While she is in the ladies room an older French lady tells her how to win Jack – by using sugar not vinegar - and dresses Mary in one of her seductive dancer’s outfits. Jack and Mary go back to his hotel room, but Jack is too drunk and transfixed by some invisible bubbles to kiss the lady, whom he has not yet identified as Mary.

Those strange invisible bubbles

Eventually he passes out and she chooses to change back into her uniform. She is topless, two men burst in. They think she and Jack have slept together and she is discharged from the army.
The famous shot of Clara, almost topless
Later, Jack and David are back at the front. Strangely, David has a premonition of his own death and warns Jack to organise his belongings. Jack reads about Mary’s ‘quitting’ the female army in the newspaper. He stands up for her honour but still thinks he loves Sylvia and that she returns it.  The next fight looms, the pair fights bravely but David’s plane crashes and he is almost shot by enemy troopers. Magically, he survives and is hiding in enemy territory. Jack is worried and has little hope that David is still alive.
It is not long before, Jack is on another mission and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, David, steals an enemy plane and takes flight. The allies have won the battle, Jack is heading back when he sees the enemy plane David is driving – but he does not see him and shoots it down. He crashes into a church and Jack follows wanting to get a souvenir of his victory. He sees the dying solder and recognises him.  He is distraught that he killed his friend, but David forgives him and they part as friends. Later when he is sorting David’s possessions he finds a letter from Sylvia stating that she loves him and not Jack. Soon, he is granted leave and returns home, a hero, with David’s belongings to take to his parents. While there he sees Mary again and he tells her about an encounter he had with a girl in Paris, that he didn’t know who she was and it was a mistake. She forgives him knowing that she was that girl. Under a shooting star, he finally kisses her.

This movie is definitely worthy of the word, epic, and I would consider it in the same league as North and South or Gone with the Wind. It has romance, long fight scenes, mateship, and a significant historical event to cloud the lives of the character, just not sound. On that subject, I have to admit I don’t usually like silent movies and have only seen two before: ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ with a young John Barrymore and ‘Pandora’s Box’ starring the stunning Louise Brooks. Also, I loved the ‘Artist’ but I did go into it thinking that there was a 75% chance I would hate it. But, either due to the direction or the script or my fascination with Clara, I was completely drawn in by this classic film. The storyline was modern and moving, I found myself almost in tears when Jack had to tell David’s parents about his death and rooting for him and Mary to get together in the end.

The film is even better when you look at it historically. The director, mostly known for dramatic realistic Precodes, William Wellman, uses brilliant camera angles and is amazing at creating believable fight scenes, mostly in the air, with the minimal technology available in the late 20’s. It is also interesting to watch this talent as this skill was lost only a few years later in Precodes due to the necessity of fitting in with the microphones and sound directors. I especially loved the use of suggestion, such as, the shadow to symbolise a plane which is just a powerful as the real thing.  For more information on the production, I inserted a video from the documentary ‘Moguls and Movie-stars’ talking about it both from a historical perspective and from the viewpoint of directing newcomer Wellman.

A note on one of the most important components, the actors. I did like Charles in the role of Jack, he has this boyish face that translates well in the dull black and white print and is really handsome.  Richard on the other hand was good but not great; there was something about him that did not film well. Perhaps it is because I am looking from a modern viewpoint, but his extremely light blue eyes and thin face was made to look ghostly and frightening at times in my copy. Clara was simply magnificent; she is amazingly energetic and vibrant, having only seen her slightly overweight and exhausted in her Precodes, I was delighted to watch her always running, climbing over things and excited. Her style of acting shines in silents and she always made me smile.

Beautiful Clara

Also, this film is fascinating for one other reason being one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper. He plays the more senior laid back and nonchalant aviator, White, who the two men instantly respect and idolise. Gary’s appearance is too short as he is killed minutes after their meeting in a training exercise. But you can certainly tell he was going to be a big star.
Gary Cooper on the right of Charles and Richard
I was mesmerised by this film and found it more entertaining than I expected it to be. Although, like most silents it probably won’t be as popular with today’s audiences, it is modern in its themes and at times seemed like a contemporary romantic-drama movie. It is a film definitely worthy of its status as the first film to win the Best Movie category of the Academy Awards.       

Monday 13 August 2012

Not for the Faint-hearted: Smarty (1934)

Some people have seen ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933), but here is a review of a little known Warren William/ Joan Blondell film, ‘Smarty’ (1934). It is a story of marriage and divorce and how to keep the spark between husband and wife. It was one of the last films to get through before film censorship and, I have to admit, its themes are definitely Precode.


Vicki and Tony Wallace (Joan Blondell and Warren William) appear to be a happily married couple. Tony is deeply in love with his wife and her with him. But there is one problem or stumbling block, Vicki is a perpetual joker. She loves teasing her husband, playing tricks and humiliating him; however, up until now, he has allowed her to behave as she likes with the understanding that it is better to keep the situation the same then anger her. The couple have a small party for Vicki’s birthday with their friends: the annoying George (Frank McHugh), the worldly and multi-divorcee Anita (Claire Dodd) and the stuffy, moralistic, superior Vernon (Edward Everett Horton). They are playing cards when, as usual, Vicki begins teasing Tony in front of Anita.
           Vicki: Don’t grunt darling, it’s not ethical
           Tony: I never made a sound
           Vicki: Didn’t he make a grunting noise
           Anita: Maybe it was something he ate
           Vicki: Yes, darling would you like some bicarbonate of soda
           Tony: Vicki this flow of humour I just a little ore then I can bare
          Vicki, mockingly: Oh, don’t be irritable precious

Vicki continues until, infuriated, Tony over-turns the table and hits her.

Shocked she pulls back from him. Tony is guilty and contrite, but calm, level-headed Vicki has one decree – she wants a divorce and turns to lawyer Vernon for help. He convinces her that it would be a simple and quick procedure to get rid of Tony, that she could claim physical cruelty. Later, Vernon goes to talk to a depressed Tony to tell him of the situation. After a little prodding, Vernon admits he is in love with Vicki as well and Tony punches him. Anita and Vicki break the fight up and Vicki, steadfast, gives Tony some advice:
“You know, exit smiling.”

As quick as the fight started, Vicki is divorced and remarried to Vernon. Meanwhile, broken-hearted, Tony is out partying every night, cavorting with different women and drinking too much. Vicki, who can’t seem to get Tony out of her mind, asks him over for dinner with her, Vernon and the group. He accepts and she begins scheming for a way to get Tony back in her life. Without the approval of stuffy Vernon, Vicki buys a daring backless dress for the occasion. As soon as Tony arrives, accompanied by one of his lady ‘friends’ Mrs Bonnie Durham (Joan Wheeler), she asks him up to her room, alone. He is instantly smitten with her in the racy dress and Vicki makes it worse by asking him to hook the back of her dress together. After several attempts, Tony caves and admits he is still in love with her.   

At that moment, Vernon comes home and finds Tony in Vicki’s room. After an argument Tony leaves and, characteristically Vicki begins teasing Vernon.   

“Why don’t you act like a man and hit me or as Tony says with a grapefruit. Have we any grapefruit?”

Enraged, Vernon hits her. Upset, but not overly surprised, Vicki locks herself in her room. Tony, meanwhile, has left taking Bonnie with him intent on getting drunk first at a nightclub and then back to his house. Before they can get there, Vicki has climbed out her window and has gone up to his apartment and hides in Tony’s bedroom as he and Bonnie arrive. With the intention of finding the now missing Vicki, Vernon and Anita arrive at Tony’s but he is, as yet, unaware of Vicki’s scandalous presence in his bedroom. They are about to leave, satisfied that only Bonnie and Tony are in the apartment, when Vicki calls out from the bedroom.  They find her cross –legged on his bed, draped in his dressing gown provocatively smoking a cigarette.  

Will she stay or will she go?


Understandably, like lots of Precodes, the plot has not many twists or surprises; however, it is invariably a character driven movie and the actors don’t disappoint. I love Warren William and Joan Blondell together they play perfectly off each other and have blatant sexual chemistry. Also, the supporting actors Claire Dodd as the all-knowing, cynical society divorcee, Edward Everett Horton as the moralistic, stuffy lawyer with too pale makeup and the odd, wise-cracking Frank McHugh as George are all great. Although, it is odd to see Joan in a negative role, she isn’t a villain, but appears to be motivated by some unknown reason to torment the men in her life and provoke them to react badly.  

To say the least, ‘Smarty’ is a controversial film and if it was shown readily today would create uproar due to its Precode themes. Indeed, read some of the reviews from IMBD, “Well made but disturbing and hard to like”, “Slight tale of masochistic woman in control”, “Smarty - unguarded look at sadistic male fantasies” and “If this film were remade today the title would be changed to the more appropriate "Slutty."” Not very positive. Most of these comments come from the main theme of the movie and the controversial ending. It is all up to interpretation, but the character of Vicki appears to be outspoken and out of control and the solution – as the film comments – is for her husband to hit her. She seems, in ‘Red-headed Women’ like fashion, to want it, with the lines, “That’s just it, if he really loved me he would have hit me long ago” seemingly showing it. Therefore, as I can gather the moral of the film is to keep a marriage stable and passionate a man must take control of his woman, by force if he has to, and that unions where the women is in control (for example the short coupling of Vicki with Vernon) do not last. It is this feature that turns the movie from entertaining and great to somewhat strange and, above all, dated.

I haven’t even mentioned the most scandalous bit, the ending. After Anita and Vernon leave, Vicki thinks that she and Tony will fall back into a happy marriage, however, he isn’t so easy. Vicki provokes him again with the odd symbol of diced carrots; Tony smashes the bottle. He tells her to leave, but before she goes, Vicki asks him to hook her dress up. They argue about it and Vicki says:
“What are you going to do about it?”

Tony replies: “I’ll show you,” and rips the dress off, leaving her in a short black negligee.

He then shakes her, grabs her hair and violently hits her. He throws her on the couch and she says: “Tony dear, hit me again.” And the camera fades out as he leans in to kiss her.

Racy? It is definitely a Precode treatment of feminism and marriage and not what I expected. Plus the light-hearted treatment of infidelity, alcoholism and promotion of an easy divorce to continue with the sinful nature of the movie.

 A lot of people will hate this movie, but from my point of view, I am too obsessed with Joan and Warren to the point that I don’t really care about the particulars of the plot or themes; I just love to watch them. That is why with this film, I leave it up personal opinion of the individual.  Also, I would be much appreciated if anyone can tell me the significance of the diced carrots?     

    You cant tell me they dont look cute together

Blink and you will miss it....

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Surprise!! Warren William in TCM's Summer Under the Stars

I was looking through the line-up of TCM's: Summer Under the Stars praying for the day that I can afford to get pay-tv (or as you Americans call it cable) as it is really expensive in Australia. And lo and behold, my favourite Precode actor and coincidentally my 'Actor of the Month', Warren William has a special day allocated to him. It it not until the 30th but I am just giving all those Warren fans and those who are new to him, a heads up on the line-up for the day. TCM certainly pack a lot of Warren in one day, here is the list:

6:00am – Bedside (1934)

7:15am – First Hundred Years (1938)
8:30am – Wives Under Suspicion (1938)

9:45am – The Mouthpiece (1932)
11:15am – Skyscraper Souls (1932)

1:00pm – Three on a Match (1932)
2:15pm – The Match King (1932)

3:45pm – The Mind Reader (1933)
5:00pm – Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

6:45pm – Times Square Playboy (1936)
8:00pm – Lady for a Day (1933)

9:45pm – Cleopatra (1934)
11:45pm – Employees’ Entrance (1933)

1:15am – Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
2:45am – Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939)

4:00am – Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)

This is one great day of movies and I need to bribe an Austar user to let me stay at their home and take command of their television for a day. There are some great movies on this list, some of which I will be reviewing over the coming month, but here is a list of my top 5 recommendations:

1) As it is probably my favourite Precode film ever - Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is my top pick. With a great cast, cute plot and catchy songs its an absolute must-watch. 

2) Taking a total change from Warren's almost comedic role in Gold-Diggers, he plays a ruthless department store boss in 'Employees Entrance' (1933). Note: the great performances of Precode lovelies Alice White and Loretta Young. 


3) I have been dying to see, 'Mind Reader' (1933) with Warren as a cunning con-man playing a clairvoyant. I have read some great reviews of it and the stills look amazing.

4) Another film cementing Warren as a negative, unscrupulous character, 'Match King' (1932) looks like an entertaining film. With assists by the beautiful Lilli Daminta, Glenda Farrell and Claire Dodd how could you go wrong.

5) The final recommendation was between 'Cleopatra' (1934) and 'Lady for a Day' (1933). They are both great films, if you have time to watch both go for it, but 'Lady for a Day' has to triumph as one of the early Frank Capra films and a nominee for Best Picture.

I am soo excited that an actor, who is often forgotten, is being recognised amongst some of the greatest performers of film history. For more information, TCM has got a great website promoting Summer Under the Stars with a fabulous Warren William page. To access it, click here.

Blink and you will miss it...

Sunday 5 August 2012

Actor of the Month: Warren William

It's strange I had a list of actresses that I planed to use for my monthy tribute - Lilyan Tashman, Fay Wray, even the Precode queen, Kay Francis. But last night I impulsively decided - maybe because I wanted an excuse to see more of his films - to pay homage to the King of Precode, the wonderful Warren William.

Warren William

Warren William was a man entirely of the Precode era. Handsome, funny, classy and seductive he shared these qualities with a handful of other famous leading men, such as, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. But he was so much of this era that he is virtually unknown today. The end of the Precode brought a stop to the leading characters that Warren made so popular. He could no longer seduce multiple women at once, have mistresses, wild parties and he had to tone down his sexual innuendo.   This magic never returned.

The “King of Precode” was born Warren William Krech on December 2, 1894 in Aitkin, Minnesota. He started out, like most successful talkie actors, in Broadway and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Although, he originally wanted to be a journalist he took well to acting and debuted on stage in the H.G Wells play “The Wonderful Visit” in 1924. It wasn’t until 17 productions later in 1931 that Warren got his big break in films with Warner Bros. putting him under contract. He was the lead in his first talkie “Honor of the Family” (1931) and was soon cast in other minor depression era movies, such as, “Under 18” (1931) and “Beauty and the Boss” (1931). It wasn’t until his role in “Mouthpiece” (1932) that the public started to stand up and take notice and Warners realised Warren’s potential not as a comedic talent but as a negative, amoral, domineering businessman. In his roles in “The Dark Horse” (1932), “Employee’s Entrance” (1932), “Match King” (1932) and “Skyscraper Souls” (1932) he exemplified the true depression-era villain, a man that resembled the real life political and financial figures of the day and someone the public could love to hate. His career peaked early in 1934, first by playing the male lead in the popular Busby Berkley musical

The beginning of the production code era brought the end of Warren’s short lived career. Although, he was featured in a number of fairly successful movies, such as, “Satan Meet a Lady” (1936) with Bette Davis and “Lone Wolf” (1941), he would never be the commanding leading man again. He continued acting up until his early death of bone marrow cancer in 1948, aged only 53. Co-star Joan Blondell interestingly said that he, “was an old man even when he was a young man.”

Top 5 Things You Don’t Know About Warren
1.      He served in World War 1

2.      He was 6’1”, very tall for a leading man at that time

3.      He starred as investigator John Francis O’Connell on the radio program “Strange Wills”, two years before his death

4.      Although, his stage persona was of a promiscuous ladies man, he was only married once and had no children

5.      The top Warren fact, that he was a successful amateur inventor. Apparently, he patented the first lawn vacuum, a machine that became popular after his death, and a recreational vehicle that enabled him to continue sleeping while being driven to the studio 
Warren and his only wife Helen 

Like usual, I have devised a list of movies that I will review over the coming month. As Warren portrayed a number of different types of characters, I choose two sets of diverse films in order to get a full picture of his talents. The first pair is Warren in a comedy role with “Smarty” (1934) and “Goodbye Again” both with Joan Blondell. The other couple showcase Warren’s ability to be deceptive and ruthless with “Employee’s Entrance” (1933) alongside Loretta Young and “Skyscraper Souls” (1932) with Maureen O’Sullivan.

People have always commented on the resemblance of Warren William to John Barrymore. As leers go, they are both amazing but in different leagues. I also imagined John was the seducer for the upper class and Warren for the working class. What do you think? I’m including my first ever poll for the month of Warren. The question: Who has the best leer? Your possible answers Warren (of course), John Barrymore, Gary Cooper – for his quiet, grinning expression and Clark Gable, mainly for the adorable ears and smile. Also, I understand a lot of people don’t watch many Precodes, so I’ve included an ‘I don’t know’ option for those new to Precode.  

Blink and you will miss it...

Brother Can You Spare a Dime

I thought it was time to put my entry to the Film Classics writing competition. It wasn't my best effort, but it was in an area that I am most passionate about and was awarded in the top ten. If anyone has any opinions on it can they put them at the bottom.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime - Movie Musicals and American Turmoil

Where would we be without music? It creates national pride, brings people together and just makes us feel better. Therefore, it’s not strange that filmmakers have used this medium for decades to shape the entertainment which is the movies.
Even Edison’s – a scientist not an artist – first film was centred around music and its effect on his male friends. But then, poor Edison only had the power to create moving images and the beauty of the sound needed to be inferred rather than experienced. Decades later, brought the change that audiences needed – talking picture. This new type of movie experience meant a fan could hear as well as see their favourite star and the age of the great scriptwriters was born.
If it sounds like I’m glossing over years of cinema history and important technological and social change, you would be right. But, I am just getting to the best bit, because with the coming of the talkies came the even greater genre of the musical.
The allure of the sparkling sequined costumes, faced-paced dancing, gleaming smiles and dreamlike backdrops have fascinated both the movies contemporary audiences and those of today. The actors and actresses have profited from the new medium – Judy is instantly synonymous with the bird-like singing and child-like innocence of Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’ and when the name Fred Astaire is mentioned people immediately think of his light feat and the complicated choreography of ‘Top Hat’ or ‘Funny Face’.
While watching a couple of my favourite musicals I noticed something extraordinary. Some, such as, the above mentioned ‘Funny Face’ or even ‘The Wizard of Oz’ were created simply for entertainment but others, some forgotten or some less commercial, speak to the audience on a deeper level. They do this by commenting on the social situation of the period, offering an escape or simply showing the living standards of the majority of Americans to create a kind of solidarity. In this filmmakers were using not only words and faces, but song and dance to communicate and persuade viewers to see their viewpoint on certain social issues. And this seemed to work. By removing the serious undertones of the problem, filmmakers were able to reach more people than before, mainly when discussing the two most serious events in American history – the Great Depression and World War II.      
Exhibit 1# Busby Berkley. Here was a director that not only had an opinion on the financial and political state of America in the early 1930’s but vivid imagination and the ability to produce stunning yet simple musical scenes. Also, it is interesting to note that his dance numbers showed a need to rebel, such as his a subtle contempt of the institutions that governed the making of his films, namely the Legion of Decency and the MPPDA. His great accomplishment was the depression era film, ‘Gold-digger’s of 1933’ (1933) in which nearly all the dance scenes have some political remark either explicit or implicit.  Indeed, within the first few minutes the viewer is bombarded by the beautiful Ginger Rogers and a line of scantily clad chorus girls singing, “We’re in the Money” a song glamorizing the ways of a ‘gold-digger’ and the poverty she faced after the stock market crash. And, to leave audiences astounded, the final minutes are filled by Joan Blondell singing (although I hear it was dubbed) the moving “Forgotten Man” number amongst a backdrop of poverty riddled streets and homeless men. The song comments on something slightly different from the problems with the depression but the treatment of army veterans who, when they returned from World War I, faced high unemployment and little welfare.
Although, these are blatant stabs at the wellbeing of ordinary people, the light-hearted song “Pettin’ in the Park” sung by Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell could also be interpreted as, in some ways, politically motivated more by the use of its chorography than its lyrics. It is well known that Busby hated the censors and the Hays Code that was meant to reduce indecent and violent behaviour from being shown. In this number, he deliberately goes against the organisation and depicts images of nude women covered only by a transparent shade and uses several unconcealed sexual innuendoes during the clip.   
Busby was no one hit wonder. As a director, film after film was filled with social comments, jabs at authority and jokes at the failing censorship system. I will never forget the strange image of Franklin D. Roosevelt flashed on the screen during the song ‘Shanghai Lil’ performed by James Cagney and Ruby Keeler in ‘Footlight Parade’ (1933). He was a pioneer but not the only director experimenting with the musical form.
Busby's great politcal statement in 'Footlight Parade' (1933)

Fast-forward to the early 40’s and America is again involved in a major world-wide event affecting more than just particular factions of society but all Americans, World War II.
But this time, instead of rebelling against authority like their depression-era comrades, these directors followed the governments lead and used their power to promote nationalism and the importance of the war to their audiences. Even dramatic stars wanted a piece of the musical action heading variety-based films made solely to boost the morale of the anxious nation. Bette Davis and John Garfield, were the leaders of this movement creating and starring in ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (1943) where famous actors and actresses would contribute short clips later transformed into a film with most of the profits were donated to the cause. Most of the scenes were musical with Bette and even the dapper Errol Flynn singing for the enjoyment of audiences. After the success of Warner’s film, other studios soon followed with United Artists releasing its own edition, ‘Stage Door Canteen’ (1943) featuring Katherine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead and MGM’s fluffy ‘Thousand’s Cheer’ also made in 1943.
Thank Your Lucky Stars
Thousands Cheer (1943)
Viewing these films today they seem more propaganda than daring, political musicals. They seem to skim over the harsh realities of the war and attempt to enhance sentiments of nationalism and pride. But the musicals of the Precode and war era’s have more in common than just political undertones, they both appear to capture the emotions and needs of the country at those times. During the 30’s the people were rebelling, they wanted change and a loosening in the social strictures – that’s what Busby communicated. During the 40’s, Americans needed hope, an escape and reassurance that the war was worth the sacrifice and the musicals boosted and reinforced those desires.  Musicals will always be relied upon enliven the hearts of viewers. Their power lies not only with their beauty and joy but the uncanny way of speaking on a deeper, more political level without audiences even knowing it.

Footlight Parade's daring political statement, 'Forgotten Man'

Blink and you will miss it...

Friday 3 August 2012

Myrna Loy: The Precode Chameleon

Myrna was a stunning actress  whose career spanned over 50 years. She was known for playing head strong but loving society ladies, such as, in 'The Thin Man' (1934) and 'Libeled Lady' (1936). I first fell in love with her while watching a Cary Grant marathon. Instead of focusing on Cary, I spent my time viewing 'Batchelor and the BobbySoxer' (1947) and 'Mr Blandings Builds His Dream Home' (1948) transfixed by Myrna's natural grace and talent.

But, what most people don't know is that Myrna, like Joan Crawford, was a master chameleon. I'm not sure whether it was brains or pure chance but she seemed to exemplify the needs and desires of the American woman in every decade she was in Hollywood. To celebrate her 105th birthday on the 2nd of August, I have done a little photo montage of her every-changing roles and appearance in the Precode era. It is amazing to see how one woman could go from vamp to housewife in just five years.

The Exotic Vamp

The Black Watch (1929)

The Desert Song (1929)


Manipulative Oriental Witches

Thirteen Women (1932)

Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)


Manipulative Society Women  

Animal Kingdom (1932)

Penthouse (1933)


The Perfect Wife

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

'The Thin Man' (1934)

Vamp to a Wife in just five years.....
Blink and you will miss it....